On The Corner written and directed by Nathaniel Geary, produced by Marc Stephenson and Wendy Hyman, with Alex Rice, Simon Baker, JR Bourne and Katharine Isabelle. Distributed by TVA Films. 95 minutes. Opens Friday (June 18). For review, venues and times, see Movie listings, page 90. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Vancouver filmmaker Nathaniel Geary insists that his film On The Corner is no bleaker than reality. "Everything that I wrote about was something I'd seen or heard. Life down there is pretty extreme and dramatic."
The project got its seed when Geary returned to Vancouver from film school in Montreal and was shocked by what he saw. The Downtown Eastside, where he used to shop with his mother at Woodward's department store, was a shell of its former self. Woodward's had moved out and, after the social cleansing that took place during Expo 86, drug dealers had moved in en masse.
"The district was in a pretty wild state - people shooting needles on the street, fights erupting on the sidewalk, prostitutes, boarded-up storefronts. I'd been to New York, L.A., Montreal, Toronto, but this was unlike anything I'd seen anywhere. A lot of people say this area with its open drug scene is unique in North America, and possibly the world."
Shock turned to fascination, and then to a determination to intervene. He met some people who worked in the neighbourhood, including a few from the government-run Portland Hotel that houses people with mental illnesses and drug addictions.
He asked them for a job.
"They said, 'You're crazy, but sure. '"
He stayed there for seven years, and the experiences he had and people he met formed the composite characters in his first feature film, On The Corner.
It wasn't just the drama of it that motivated him to make the movie.
"I was interested in the people. A lot of middle-class Canadians are not interested in them, and that's why the neighbourhood is in the state it's in. I wanted to bring their lives to the screen, tell their story."
On The Corner is set in a slumlord-run hotel where a 16-year-old boy (Simon Baker) who comes from a Prince Rupert reserve to visit his sister (Alex Rice) and search for his father gets caught up in a multi-generational spiral of drugs and prostitution.
"The neighbourhood has changed a lot in the last 10 years. In the film, in the background, there are hundreds of people on the street at any given time, selling drugs or hanging out. But right after we finished shooting, the police instituted a kind of street-clearing routine where they would arrive in a group and arrest every single drug dealer on the street."
The scene change isn't due solely to intervention by the cops. Canada's first safe injection site has opened there as well. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's staffed by people from the Portland Hotel Society.
The Portland Hotel Society appears to be a major force for good. They own several buildings in the area. The hotel proper, created for "people who've been evicted from every place they've ever had," offers methadone and meals, a needle exchange and doctors on staff. What's more, it has a non-eviction policy.
"Someone can go to jail for six months and come back, and they still have their room."
In On The Corner, the original Portland Hotel building, now empty, stands in for one of the slum hotels that are the neighbourhood's other housing option. The landlord charges 10 dollars a head for visitors to enter the hotel. According to Geary, that was a fairly common practice until recently.
"It's happening less now," Geary observes. "There are changes, but the real changes that need to happen are societal changes, and they're slow coming."
"Treating drug use as a medical issue as opposed to a criminal issue. There's no point in arresting drug addicts, or even dealers - it's a revolving door.
"We as a society promote a model of punishment, but I think we'd be better off if we looked at these people and said, 'OK, you need help, so we're going to help you.' That's a big mindset shift.
"It's the same for prostitution. Would women be safer in legalized places?
"Probably. Would all those women on the Downtown Eastside be missing if there were safer conditions to work the trade? I don't think so." Heartbreak hotel